Halilhodzic warns Japan to shape up before Brazil, Belgium tests

by

Staff Writer

National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic branded Japan’s 3-3 draw with Haiti on Tuesday “the worst match I have seen” and warned his players to shape up or be humiliated in next month’s friendlies against Brazil and Belgium.

“I’ve been a manager for many years and I’ve never seen a match as bad as this,” Halilhodzic told reporters after Shinii Kagawa had saved Japan from an embarrassing friendly defeat to the Caribbean minnows with a 92nd-minute equalizer at Nissan Stadium.

“People would think I was ridiculous if I started talking about the World Cup after a match like this. I have to apologize to the supporters. They came out and created a great atmosphere, the perfect conditions for us to play in. We couldn’t live up to that and that’s my responsibility.”

Japan took a two-goal lead when Shu Kurata and Kenyu Sugimoto scored in the first 17 minutes but looked to be heading for defeat when Haiti — ranked No. 48 in the world — hit back through Kevin Lafrance and a Duckens Nazon double.

Kagawa saved a measure of respectability for Japan when he redirected Gotoku Sakai’s injury-time shot into the Haiti net, but Halilhodzic warned that Brazil and Belgium will show no mercy if his team produces a repeat performance when they meet in friendlies in France next month.

“Our next opponents will be a much bigger obstacle,” said Halilhodzic, whose team faces five-time world champion Brazil in Lille on Nov. 10 and current world No. 5 Belgium at a yet-to-be-decided venue four days later.

“They will shatter our illusions,” he said. “They are two of the best teams in the world. If we play like this again then we will find ourselves in a very sorry situation.”

Japan was playing Haiti four days after beating New Zealand 2-1 in its first outing since qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia. Halilhodzic used a total of 22 players in both matches, with those on the fringes of the squad hoping to force their way into the manager’s World Cup plans.

“I was really relaxed before the game, but I was in the starting lineup and when I was standing out there listening to the national anthems I think I tensed up a little,” said midfielder Yuki Kobayashi, who made his first start in four international appearances but was substituted after 56 minutes.

“There was no need to go charging up the field after we conceded the first goal, but we did and we left a lot of space in behind us for them to exploit. There was a lot of wasted movement. I think that was because my body felt tense.”

Halilhodzic was at a loss to understand his team’s performance and said he had identified some players as “mentally fragile.” Japan also let a lead slip against New Zealand before Kurata scored an 88th-minute winner, and regular center back Maya Yoshida admits he is concerned at the team’s lapses in concentration.

“That’s a problem because after we scored we have conceded, many times,” said the Southampton defender, who was an unused substitute against Haiti. “Same as the last game against New Zealand. We have to change.

“It was probably going to be the last opportunity to play for many players, because next month we play against two of the best countries in the world and we don’t have time in March before the World Cup. I think it’s a huge disappointment but that’s real, that’s football.”

Haiti was eliminated from World Cup contention at the penultimate round of North American qualifying, but manager Marc Collat was satisfied with his team’s performance against Japan.

“I have a really good impression of the Japan team,” he said. “The result wasn’t so good for them but they made a lot of chances. This game was proof that dominating possession and controlling the game doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win. We only created about a third of the chances that Japan did but we took ours when they came.”